Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera were the first women to be appointed presidents of the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta respectively. They have co-authored Nerve: Lessons on leadership from two women who went first, to be published in September.

Universities are not known as being innovative institutions that are open to change. For much of their history they were led at every level by men, which created a culture that benefitted those in power. New members who are different are not always welcomed or supported.

Our early academic careers, over 40 years ago, were fraught with many of the challenges and disappointments outlined in the article published in Saturday’s Globe and Mail about the many hurdles women face trying to climb the ranks of academia. They included rejected research grants, difficulties in securing tenure and promotion, disrespect for certain aspects of our scholarship and clear male bias against women peers – all of which unfortunately still exist today. The reported statistics are depressing and don’t lie, leading us to despair that so little progress has been made over the past several decades.

Story continues below advertisement

As we reflected upon our own experience, we have come to recognize that our success was the result of not what we did, but rather what others did for us.

Being a Black farmer in a field of white opened my eyes to Canada’s agriculture diversity problem

Canada’s Supreme Court already requires diversity. Why not racial diversity, too?

What do we mean by this? As with other women academics, we worked hard, putting in hours of effort to advance our teaching and research initiatives. In fact, we probably worked too hard. But hard work on its own is not enough. What we now know is that we clearly benefited from the actions of others who believed in us, stood up for us, advocated for us – and, most importantly, took a chance on us. Who were these people? They were our “sponsors.”

The concept of a sponsor has not been as widely understood or studied as the notion of a mentor. However, a sponsor can have an enormous influence on one’s career trajectory, often more than a mentor. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor explains the difference in detail.

Mentors are people who take an interest in you, who listen to your issues and offer advice and guidance. A sponsor, on the other hand, is a senior person who believes in your potential and is willing to take a chance on you. Sponsors advocate for and promote individuals they presume to be winners and suggest them for appointments, career advancements and leadership roles. Often the person they advocate for has no idea and only becomes aware of the role their sponsor played after the fact.

As we look back on our respective career paths, we can now see our sponsors were numerous. They involved PhD supervisors, people to whom we reported, members of our communities, directors on corporate boards and peers. They took chances on us – sticking out their own necks by recommending us to others, when in most every case, we did not have the traditional qualifications or backgrounds required for the appointment or promotion. In doing so, they also helped challenge some of the systemic biases that might have impeded us.

We now understand that we would never have been able to buck the system just by working hard or excelling. While those two attributes are critical to attracting sponsors, they are not enough by themselves. Had we tried to do it alone, we would have faltered. Our successes throughout our careers, whether in the university or at the corporate board table, have been dependent on being sponsored by others.

We are not certain how we attracted our sponsors. Perhaps we were just lucky or were in situations where the better angels of our community were present and willing to take a chance on us. We are forever grateful to the many individuals who believed in us, made others aware of our abilities by speaking on our behalf and who acknowledged certain attributes in us that were not commonly accepted as those of people in positions of responsibility.

Story continues below advertisement

One thing we are certain about is that regardless of the strides we have made through equity offices, fair employment policies and the establishment of quotas, women need to become actively involved in sponsoring other women. Yes, we have been assiduous about developing networks of mentors, but mentors are not enough to fill the power gap. Women need sponsors.

And women, like men who have gone before them and who are experts at sponsorship, need to recognize both the power of sponsorship and the importance of building large and effective networks of people who will risk their own reputations to break down barriers. By taking a chance on women, we all will succeed.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies